Spinoza's Philosophy of Divine Order

by Ben Stahlberg (Author)
©2015 Monographs VI, 201 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 353


While Spinoza is often interpreted as an early secular or liberal thinker, this book argues that such interpretations neglect the senses of order and authority that are at the heart of Spinoza’s idea of God. For Spinoza, God is an organized and directed totality of all that exists. God is entirely immanent to this totality, to such an extent that all things are fundamentally of God. Appreciating the full extent to which God permeates and orders every aspect of reality, allows the full sense of Spinoza’s theories of tolerance and the social contract to come into view. Rather than assuming that human beings involved in political relationships are independent, autonomous individuals, for Spinoza they are parts of a larger whole subject to distinct natural laws. Spinoza maintains that such laws manifest themselves equally and identically in the seemingly distinct realms of religion and politics. In this respect, Spinoza’s theories of religion and biblical interpretation are not properly secular in character but rather blur the standard boundary between the religious and the political as they try to recognize and codify the inviolable laws of nature – or God.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Notations and Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Outline
  • The Problem of Agency
  • Chapter One: “The Face of the Whole Universe”: Spinoza’s Idea of God
  • Introduction: God’s Self-Causal Nature
  • Substance
  • Natura Naturans—Natura Naturata
  • The Conditions of Pantheism
  • The Problem of “Finite Modes”
  • Real Distinctions
  • Chapter Two: “A Kingdom Within a Kingdom”: Spinoza on the Individual and the Idea of the Will
  • Introduction: The Problem of the Individual
  • Mind and Body
  • The Order of Desire
  • Common Notions
  • The “Idea” of the Will
  • Chapter Three: “Nothing More Useful than Man…”: Spinoza on Politics
  • Introduction
  • Nature’s Laws
  • Reasons for the Political Body
  • The Freedom of Obedience
  • The Conditions of Toleration
  • Chapter Four: “The Supreme Reward of the Divine Law”: Law and Religion in Spinoza
  • Introduction
  • Spinoza’s Theocracy
  • The Love of God
  • Spinoza’s Idea of Hebrew
  • The Politics of Biblical Interpretation
  • Conclusion: “Man Is God to Man”
  • Strauss
  • Levinas
  • Scripture, Servitude, and Sovereignty
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

← vi | vii →


Notations and Abbreviations

All parenthetical quotations of Spinoza are taken from Samuel Shirley’s Complete Works of Spinoza. As all “Propositions” from the Ethics are italicized in the text they are left so when quoted. To clarify which of Spinoza’s texts these quotations are drawn from I refer to the specific text within the parentheses by the following abbreviations:

TI—Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect
      ST—Short Treatise on God, Man, and Well-Being
      PCP—Principles of Cartesian Philosophy
      TTP—Theological-Political Treatise
      TP—Political Treatise
      HG—Hebrew Grammar
      L—The Letters

All Latin quotations from Spinoza are taken from Bendicti de Spinoza opera philosophica omina. Edited by August Firedrich Gfroeer. Stuttgart: J.B. Mezleri, 1830.

All biblical quotations are, unless otherwise noted, taken from The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →



General Overview

This book argues that the thought of Baruch de Spinoza—or Benedcit de Spinoza1—is best understood as a philosophy of divine order. By order, I mean an organized and directed totality, caused only by itself, and with nothing falling outside of its purview. For Spinoza, such an order is divine precisely because of its infinite, solely-caused character, and thus he equates it with God—along with Nature and substance. This book is an attempt to delineate the many aspects and implications of Spinoza’s conception of divine order, particularly with regard to how human beings should live.

It is especially in light of this last concern that I argue that Spinoza’s idea of divine order should be understood as a re-examination of what we take an individual to be. That is, insofar as Spinoza is interested in describing a rationally ordered totality of all that is, one that interprets all particular parts of that totality as first and foremost parts of that whole, he is also interested in overcoming the idea that the human individual is any kind of substance of its own. Human beings are not entities in their own right, argues Spinoza, but specific modifications of God’s existence. The importance of this point is not only metaphysical, of course, but ethical, political, and religious as well. ← 1 | 2 →

While many hold that Spinoza was an early Enlightenment philosopher who paved the way for later forms of philosophical and political liberalism,2 I argue here that this picture of Spinoza leaves a great deal of his thought either underdeveloped or obscured. Specifically, interpretations of Spinoza that focus simply on his views of autonomy, tolerance, and freedom of thought neglect the ways in which these ideals are highly—indeed, decisively—qualified by their place within Spinoza’s conception of God, and the order that God instills. It is crucial to see how Spinoza is concerned with overcoming the idea that human beings are, principally, individuals who choose (or have the ability to choose) courses of action based on reasons or interests that they possess. To the extent that this central critique goes unrecognized, a large theme within Spinoza’s thought lies obscured. For Spinoza, the free or rational life is also the obedient one—obedient not just to the dictates of reason but in our obligation to one another, and even the political and religious structures that bring us together.

The idea that Spinoza sees freedom as a form of obedience runs counter to a great many interpretations of Spinoza, and this is especially so when we consider the concrete implications of such obedience. Indeed, many argue that the whole point of the rational life for Spinoza is to move away from any regard for particulars to a pure concern for universals. A good example of this interpretation is Rebecca Goldstein’s recent Betraying Spinoza: The Radical Jew who Gave us Modernity. Goldstein argues that Spinoza’s philosophy is best characterized as a form of “radical objectivity.”3 The things that most people see as constitutive of their lives—“one’s own family and history, one’s racial, religious, cultural, sexual, or national identity”—are, for Goldstein’s Spinoza, mere accidents to which too many have “lingering emotional attachments.”4 Indeed, Goldstein goes so far as to argue that any aspiration to an “extraphilosophical intimacy”—including her own book—“amounts to a betrayal of his vision.”5

While Goldstein is obviously right to focus her attention on Spinoza’s critique of the particular and the personal, she does not (in my view) appreciate the fact that the purpose of Spinoza’s critique is not to realize a transcendence of particularity but to change the terms and conditions by which it is understood. Of course, it is undoubtedly the case that “the priority of that fascinating singularity, that problematic and precious ‘I,’ is, for Spinoza a symptom of passivity, the acceptance of the contingently given.”6 In addition, Goldstein is also quite correct to emphasize Spinoza’s insistence that this passivity “weakens our capacities, drains and stunts us, impedes our driving force to persist in our being to flourish in the world.”7 But what goes missing in Goldstein’s account is any description of what that very world is—of what it means to persist in a being that is “ours.” While Spinoza certainly prizes objective, philosophical knowledge, he does so not because ← 2 | 3 → he wishes to discount particular religious and political commitments. Indeed, it is the argument of this book that Spinoza sees the importance of philosophy to lie principally in its ability to disclose to us the exact nature and significance of these commitments—commitments which are valuable in themselves, independent of some sort of philosophical legitimacy.

Thus, in this book I read the entirety of Spinoza’s work together, in order to see how Spinoza’s moral and political ideas are informed by his theories of philosophy and ontology, and vice versa. There is, in the literature on Spinoza, a general sense that these are separate domains within his thought that should generally be considered in isolation from one another. Sometimes this argument is made explicitly, as Menachem Lorberbaum has done,8 while other times it is more implicit, as in the work of Steven B. Smith. Although Smith asserts that the Theologico-Political Treatise (1670); hereafter TTP) and the Ethics (1677) are each parts of “a complex whole,” he insists at the same time that the TTP “was intended as an exercise in public philosophy,” whereas the Ethics, by contrast, “is an intensely private, deeply introspective book.”9 For Smith, while one text looks out, to the public world, the other looks within, to “the moral and psychological conditions of liberty.”10

Such an approach to Spinoza, with its implicit delineation of the public from the private, is not entirely unmerited, but taken too far it can conceal more than it reveals. Nonetheless, a dichotomy between philosophy (or ontology) and political theory is widespread in the secondary literature in Spinoza, even amongst those who offer interpretations of Spinoza radically different than Smith’s. Indeed, this tacit compartmentalization of Spinoza’s work is often due to the strikingly different ways in which Spinoza’s political philosophy is interpreted. For example, many thinkers, such as Smith and Lewis Feuer, regard Spinoza as one of the earliest intellectual fathers of the tradition of democratic liberalism. As such, they are inclined to treat Spinoza’s epistemology as distinct from the exclusively public task of his political theory. On the other hand, there are many, such as Gilles Deleuze, Etienne Balibar, Antonio Negri and Michael Hart, who present Spinoza as putting forth a radical materialist ontology which ultimately seeks to undo the theory of the social contract laid out in the TTP.11 For these thinkers, the TTP is of interest only to the extent that it lies in tension with Spinoza’s later reflections in the incomplete Political Treatise (1676). In this respect, the political philosophy of the TTP is an important problem within Spinoza’s philosophy, a tension which cannot be resolved—much less reconciled—with the larger philosophical themes in Spinoza’s work.

Yet this hard separation between different disciplines in these interpretations of Spinoza is nowhere more pronounced than in their understanding of the role of religion in his work. One of the main problems in the interpretation of Spinoza has ← 3 | 4 → been the fashion in which many inquiries that have tended either to marginalize or completely disregard the importance of religion in his political and philosophical positions. I argue in this book that the principal area in which Spinoza has been mis-read is in the area of religion. Specifically, the assertion that Spinoza is an early, secular thinker is a major stumbling block to proper understanding of his thought. Indeed, despite the differences of opinion surrounding Spinoza’s political thought, religion is the one area where all of the above scholars are in agreement. The great majority of Spinoza’s interpreters present him as a thinker whose only real interest in religion lies in effectively disabling it. Many follow the lead of Leo Strauss12 and argue that Spinoza had no interest in developing a constructive sense of religion, given his conception of “God” and his critique of the Bible. Any seemingly positive statements about religion—particularly Spinoza’s conception of “true religion” [vera religio]—cannot, from this perspective, be taken seriously. For others, such as Etienne Balibar, Spinoza’s conceptions of desire and the multitude put him fundamentally at odds with any religious sensibility. What is constitutive of human beings from a Spinozist point of view, these scholars argue, is our uncontrollable and ceaselessly creative desire, which could not be further opposed to any form of creedal or ecclesiastical structure.

Yet while it is quite clear that Spinoza does not subscribe to any conception of religion as a form of “faith”—in the traditional sense of an individual’s belief in something unconfirmable—it does not follow from this that Spinoza is not a religious thinker. Indeed, as theorists such as Talal Asad have shown, the idea that religion, at its root, should be equated with belief or faith is largely the product of the confrontation of Christianity with modernity:

It has become commonplace among historians of modern Europe to say that religion was gradually compelled to concede the domain of public power to the constitutional state, and of public truth to natural science. But perhaps it is also possible to suggest that in this movement we have the construction of religion as a new historical object: anchored in personal experience, expressible belief-statements, dependent on private institutions, and practiced in one’s spare time. This construction of religion ensures that it is part of what is inessential to our common politics, economy, science, and morality.13

With this in mind, it is clear that we run a great risk in discounting Spinoza’s religiousness because he does not accord himself to the Protestant ideal of faith or belief (particularly in something supernatural). Indeed, by construing the very possibility of Spinoza’s religiousness in only this distinct way, we are fundamentally blocked from considering not only what other conception of religion may be in his work, but also how he may have tried to critique the prevailing conception ← 4 | 5 → of religion upon which we ourselves rely. Unlike many of his interpreters, Spinoza (I argue) is quite interested in making sure that religion plays an essential part in “our common politics, economy, science, and morality.”


VI, 201
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
God Religion Secural Thinker
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VI, 206 pp.

Biographical notes

Ben Stahlberg (Author)

Ben Stahlberg received his PhD from Syracuse University in New York. He is currently Senior Lecturer of Religion at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.


Title: Spinoza's Philosophy of Divine Order